Like countless people around the world, I have long regarded the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author of the classic spiritual autobiography "The Seven Storey Mountain," as an icon of contemporary spirituality, a modern saint. He lived at the monastery of Gethsemani in the hills of Kentucky and, in later years for deeper contemplation, moved from the main house to a single-room dwelling called The Hermitage.
Merton not only wrote an autobiography that became a worldwide best-seller but also dozens of other books and hundreds of articles, inspiring not only Christians but followers of many faiths. In his later years, he began a dialogue with leaders of Eastern religions and traveled to Buddhist conferences in Asia, dying in a freak accident in Bangkok in 1968 at age 53.
Although Bishop Fulton J. Sheen praised "The Seven Storey Mountain" on its publication in 1948 as "a 20th-century form of 'The Confessions of St. Augustine,'" it turns out that Merton saved his deepest confessions for the private journals he kept over a period of 29 years, and restricted from publication until 25 years after his death. Published in seven volumes, the last released in 1998, these confessions reveal what Merton's own admirers regard as spiritual "scandals."
A perceptive evaluation of the entire work, "Loving Winter When The Plant Says Nothing: Thomas Merton's Spirituality in His Private Journals," by Johnathan Montaldo, director of the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, warns that these volumes of personal history will "scandalize the reader who seeks in them a spiritual success story to emulate."
Torn by earthly love and priestly vows, Merton confides that he became in his early 50s "a priest who has a woman." The woman was a young nurse whom he met and fell in love with during a stay in a Louisville Hospital, and arranged to see after he returned to the monastery. This was during the time he was living in supposed isolation at The Hermitage on the grounds of Gethsemani in what was assumed to be a state of the highest sort of purity and piety, and writing books and essays that his many followers looked to for spiritual guidance.
In his journals of this period (1966-68), Merton writes that he was saddened to find himself reverting to the behavior of his rebellious youth in Greenwich Village. With opportunities to leave the community for travel to spiritual conferences around the world and visits to the hospital in Louisville, he found himself acting "wild." He was drinking, as he had in his youth, and friends were sending him "care packarmet food and bottles of Jack Daniels.
Here I was imagining this supposed giant of self-discipline dozing off in his hermitage after a night of prayer and fasting, when actually he was knocking back a couple of shots of Jack Daniels (Black Label, no doubt) and dreaming of the next rendezvous with his nubile nurse! I felt I'd been hoodwinked. The more I read about these revelations and Merton's struggles with them, however, the less judgmental of his failures I became and the more appreciative of his willingness to lay bare his soul.
Montaldo, who began a lifelong study of Merton when he read him at age 13, points out that the monk in his confessions "places before the eyes of his readers their own struggle with conflicting desires which attend their own spiritual journeying."
Merton made the point in a later preface to his first book that "...it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a storyteller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only: I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self." That statement connected, for in Merton's record of his wrestling match with God, I see my own continuing struggles to discern--much less follow--a spiritual path.
Merton ended the relationship with the nurse, but his struggles with trying to live by his ideals continued. Today it may seem cowardly of Merton to have ordered the journals withheld until 25 years after his death--if he was thinking of protecting others surely he could have disguised or eliminated identifying references. But if we blame him in retrospect for being squeamish about such revelations, we forget how profoundly the public attitude about private confessions has altered. In the past decade, Americans have outdone one another in scandalous revelations, from an author's adult sex with her father to an academic's boyhood sex with his dog. The axiom now is "the worse you've behaved, the better your sales." A 51-year-old monk sneaking out from the monastery to rendezvous with a young nurse today would probably land the author on Oprah and the best-seller list.
Though Merton never had to face that particular temptation, he did acknowledge his own desire for public acclaim, warning himself that "Fame is the beginning of disgrace." Part of him wanted to be "a pontiff, prophet, and writer," but he felt he needed to renounce all that to be the contemplative monk he set out to be. The pull between ego-gratifying public praise and selfless service to God was a struggle that never ended, another one that many of us can identify with but few of us have the courage--and grace--to acknowledge.
I feel grateful to Merton now for his confessions, including what must have been the most difficult thing of all for a Roman Catholic monk and world-renowned spiritual leader to reveal: that even the most complete commitment to God does not guarantee peace, happiness, or human fulfillment but may indeed lead to interior conflict, struggle, and anguish. The greatest gift of Merton's private journals is to show us that even our gurus go through the darkness in search of the light, and in our spiritual failures we are not alone.